Expert Says Vermont Yankee Has Too Much Spent Fuel Stored on Site

Apr 18, 2013

A former U.S. Department of Energy official has warned lawmakers that spent nuclear fuel stored in a waste pool at Vermont Yankee poses an unacceptable risk.

The Statehouse testimony came as some lawmakers want to impose a new tax on radioactive waste at the Vernon reactor.

Robert Alvarez worked at the Department of Energy in the 1990s as a senior policy advisor. He’s now a scholar at the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington.

He’s also an avowed critic of the nuclear industry and its federal regulators. His big concern is the tons of nuclear waste stored on-site in above ground pools of water at Vermont Yankee and other plants. He says there are 513 metric tons of spent fuel in the Yankee pool – four times the amount than intended.

“Because they were meant to be temporary storage facilities, they were not required to have what we call ‘defense in depth’ requirements, which you would have for a reactor, that for example has to have a secondary containment of thick concrete and steel, redundant supply of electricity, back up water supply and all these other redundancies,” Alvarez said. “These spent fuel pools are nothing more in my opinion than warehouses.”

The 41-year-old Vermont Yankee is the same design as the reactors in Fukushima, Japan that were damaged by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

One big difference, said Alvarez, is that Yankee has even more spent fuel stored in its above-ground pool than the Fukushima reactors.

“In fact, the Vermont Yankee pool contains more than the entire inventory of spent fuel than in the four damaged reactors at the Fukushima site at this time,” he said.

When power failed at Fukushima, reactor operators could no longer pump water to keep the fuel cool. Some of the material burned, releasing radiation.

Listening to Alvarez’s testimony was Howard Schaffer, a Yankee supporter and nuclear engineer. He said that Alvarez overstates the dangers of the spent fuel pool at Vermont Yankee.

“Because most of the fuel in the pool is (cooled) down to the point where it would absorb heat in the pool, because it’s down to the point where it could be cooled in air,” he said.

Alvarez’s message to lawmakers was that Yankee should move the fuel out of the elevated pool and into safer hardened steel and concrete containers, known as dry cask storage. He estimates that could cost $42 million.

His testimony came as some lawmakers want to impose a tax on Vermont Yankee’s nuclear waste. The bill could act as an incentive to move to dry cask storage. That’s because the tax would be lower on the dry casks than on the waste stored in the pool.  

Sen. Jeannette White, D-Windham, is a lead sponsor. She said it makes sense to charge a fee to store the radioactive waste

“We have a fee of every kind of waste storage. When you got to the landfill, you have to pay a fee,” he said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin was reluctant to discuss the tax issue in detail, citing legal issues. Entergy has sued the state over a generation tax passed last year.

“There’s no question – and just look what happened in Japan – that dry cask is a safer storage than spent fuel storage areas. However, it’s not safe enough,” he said.

Shumlin said the overall problem is that the federal government has failed to build a nuclear waste repository. That means every nuclear plant in the country has its own radioactive waste storage site.